Valhalla, ZX Spectrum

Valhalla was a game that was heavily marketed as an “epic” adventure with limitless possibilities back in 1983 when it was first released. It was portrayed by its publisher, Legend, as something of a ‘killer app’ on the Spectrum, and they even tagged it with a “MoviSoft” logo to make it seem “cinematic” – MoviSoft was the name of the game’s engine.

In truth, what you got was a laughable (and very expensive, at £14.95) medieval ‘soap opera’ with stick men being mean to each other; mostly in and around castles.

Valhalla is played by typing text commands into the game and getting responses. You can summon things and order characters to do things (they won’t always comply). And you move around (by typing compass directions), take, drop and give things, and even start fights between characters.

Ultimately, though, what you’re trying to do is find and collect six magical objects in order to reach otherwise unreachable areas in the game. The down side is that by just carrying these items they sap your strength, so you have to be careful. Also: you cannot get most of them on your own – you need the help of other characters to retrieve them.

Ah, the early days of home video gaming… Archaic, frustrating gameplay, and simple concepts that are blown out of all proportion… Valhalla – like Carnell Software‘s Black Crystal – is a game that was mostly hype over content. There is a modicum of fun to be had playing Valhalla, but overall the experience is a turgid one.

One interesting thing to note about the publisher: the late, great John Peel was the chairman and founder of Legend, and Valhalla was its first game. Two more Spectrum games were released by LegendThe Great Space Race in 1984, and Komplex City in 1985.

More: Valhalla on Wikipedia

Lasso, Arcade

Lasso is an obscure arcade game, developed and manufactured by SNK Corporation in 1982. In it you play a rancher/cowboy trying to round-up his cattle with a rope.

The game generously gives you an opportunity to practise throwing the lasso at the beginning with a “warm-up” screen. Then you have to catch loose sheep and shoot fireballs at attacking wolves… Ah, you can’t make this stuff up… Let a wolf or any of your cattle touch you, though, and you lose a life. Lose all three lives and it’s game over.

If you complete the sheep level, it’s then onto the cow level at a slightly harder difficulty; then the horse level. And so on. Extra hazards, like fire(?) breathing lizards, also become more frequent as the stages progress.

Lasso is basic at best. Like Food Fight and Domino Man it is a video game idea that doesn’t really work that well in practise, but probably sounded good on paper. It’s fun for a short while, though.

More: Lasso on arcade-history.com

Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, Megadrive/Genesis

Developed by Sega and released for the Megadrive/Genesis in 1990, Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse is a masterpiece platform game that has stood the test of time extremely well.

The game itself is pretty simple: running, jumping, climbing, and swimming, with Mickey on a quest to save Minnie Mouse from the evil witch Mizrabel.

Mickey’s main weapon is his bounce, which he can perform while jumping and which helps him defeat enemies. He can also pick up items, such as apples and marbles, to use as projectiles to throw at enemies.

To defeat Mizrabel, Mickey must find the “Seven Gems of the Rainbow”, each of which can found behind a door, in a different realm, protected by one of Mizrabel’s henchmen. There are six different – graphically distinct – stages (The Enchanted Forest, Toyland, The Storm, Dessert Factory, The Library, and The Castle), with a boss battle at the end of each.

Castle of Illusion still looks and plays great to this day. If I had any complaint it would be that the Megadrive doesn’t have transparent pixels (like the SNES does), which means that the designers had to make do with using ‘stippling’ in the water sections (which is ugly and makes the game look dated). Otherwise: it’s marvellous (still).

A remake of Castle of Illusion was made by Sega Studios Australia in 2013 and is currently available on Steam.

More: Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse on Wikipedia

Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Nintendo 64

Conker’s Bad Fur Day was a surprising 2001 release – on the Nintendo 64 – for British developer Rare, in collaboration with Nintendo.

What is surprising about it is that it is an “adult” game – meaning: it contains cartoon characters behaving in ways that you don’t normally see in a Nintendo game, like vomiting on people’s shoes, making sexual innuendo, and using mild swear words.

The game begins with a cinematic Clockwork Orange-style scene, with Conker (a squirrel) looking over the top of a glass of milk as the camera slowly tracks backwards while a pseudo Beethoven musical score warbles away in the background. You know – or at least should know – at this point what kind of game this is going to be… And that is: extremely satirical, and with maybe a bit of a screw loose…

When Conker’s Bad Fur Day eventually gets going the first thing you have to do is get rid of Conker’s hangover, which is an unusual way of introducing a player to the game. Then you go on a surreal 3D platform adventure, full of Pythonesque characters, toilet humour, silly and poor taste jokes, endless tasks and puzzles, tons of film references, and of course the occasional boss battle (including one where you fight a giant turd).

Conker’s Bad Fur Day is a game that will appeal to adults who like puerile humour, and also to children as a “forbidden” game that “must not be played under any circumstances”, but they all do… It’s actually not that bad in terms of its ‘adult’ nature, and doesn’t contain anything too contentious, which is why Nintendo allowed Rare to make the game in the first place.

More: Conker’s Bad Fur Day on Wikipedia

Mario Tennis: Power Tour, Game Boy Advance

This 2005 tennis game is one of my favourite sports games of all time.

Mario Tennis: Power Tour was developed by Camelot for Nintendo and is known as Mario Power Tennis in Europe and Australia, but I’m sticking to the original title.

What makes this game so good are two things: one – the single-player ‘Career’ mode (“Power Tour“) is like playing a tennis-based RPG, and two: the game of tennis here I would say is second only to the mighty Super Tennis in terms of playable tennis games. Arguably even better!

Mario Tennis: Power Tour is a 2D tennis game, played at an overhead, three-quarter perspective. You can play one-off Exhibition games; begin the aforementioned career; link up your Game Boy Advance for multiplayer games; or play any of the minigames that you’ve unlocked in career mode.

In career mode you choose to play as a either a boy or a girl and enrol into a tennis academy. Here you learn how to improve your game in both singles and doubles matches, and also get to meet and converse with a variety of colourful characters who will either help or hinder you. As your career progresses and you start to win matches you will be able to put experience points into abilities, and unlock new skills – much like you see in most RPGs. This superb single-player career game is very much a tennis Role-Playing Game, and has some similarities with Camelot‘s RPG series, Golden Sun.

Mario Tennis: Power Tour is an engrossing and fun game, and also one of the best tennis games ever made. If you like tennis and haven’t played it: you might want to rectify that soon.

More: Mario Tennis: Power Tour on Wikipedia

Pengo, Arcade

Sega‘s Pengo is an arcade classic from 1982 and is a block-pushing maze game starring a cute penguin called – you guessed it – Pengo.

Pengo must push the ice blocks around to squash the Sno-Bees, while at the same time avoiding any contact with them. He can also push the diamond blocks together, which stuns and makes the Sno-Bees vulnerable for a short period of time. And one other ability he has is to ‘push’ and the perimeter fence to stun any Sno-Bees chasing him (and once stunned they can be killed by walking over them).

Pengo is both visually and sonically appealing, and also very challenging. Like many early arcade games: it’s no kid’s game, even if it might look like one.

Another classic from Sega‘s early catalogue, Pengo and has been re-released and re-made a number of times, so remains popular to this day.

More: Pengo on Wikipedia

Millipede, Arcade

Millipede is a direct sequel to Atari‘s Centipede and was first distributed into video game arcades in 1982.

It’s basically the same trackball-controlled gameplay as before, but with a few changes and enhancements.

You control a small elf (yes, an elf – called Archer) who can move anywhere within a small area at the bottom of the screen. Millipedes – long, multi-sectioned insects – move side to side and down the screen, turning when they hit a mushroom (or the side of the screen). What this basically means is that hitting mushrooms makes the millipede move down the screen quicker, so shooting the mushrooms and removing them from the millipede’s path helps keep it higher up the screen for longer. The ‘elf’ fires constantly if you hold the fire button down, but – crucially – he will not fire another bullet until the last one has gone. So shooting becomes tactical at certain times.

Differences to Centipede include: DDT bombs that can be shot once and will kill any insects caught in the blast radius; a bonus level where a swarm of bees replace the usual millipede; the choice of whether to start at an advance level before the game starts; and the introduction of a variety of new enemy bugs. The millipede itself also moves faster than the centipede in the previous game, which makes it harder to hit.

Millipede is a fast and enjoyable shooter from the early days of video game arcades. It’s also been converted to many home systems and is still popular today. Considering that it’s been 37 years since it’s release, that is quite remarkable.

More: Millipede on Wikipedia

Basketball, Arcade

This is the 1979, black and white arcade game, Basketball, as developed and manufactured by Atari Inc. It had two trackballs on the cabinet – one for each player.

Atari Basketball is a one-on-one game with ridiculously simple controls and objectives. For a single coin you got a three minute game, and either played against the computer or a second player. Adding more coins gave you more time, and the aim was simple: score baskets; score points; be the highest scorer.

Compared to video games now Basketball looks a bit ridiculous, but – believe me – when this was in arcades in 1979 it was pretty dazzling stuff. In fact, this was one of the earliest video games I remember playing, and I also remember hurting myself on the trackball by nipping the skin on my hand between the trackball and the cabinet! It hurt a lot, which is why I remember it so well after so long has passed (40 years ago!)…

Atari Basketball was also one of the first two-player games I remember playing – against both my brother and my dad (my dad used to play basketball so this game was attractive to him). It’s definitely fun two-player, for a short while at least.

While this is nothing like the basketball games of today, it was an early, important seed in the genre. It was the first basketball game to use the side-on, high-angled view of the court, which you see all the time now. It wasn’t uncommon to see Atari Basketball cabinets in video game arcades up and down the United Kingdom in the early 1980s and it almost certainly had an considerable influence on other video games that followed it. Even if it does look a bit lame by today’s standards… 🙂

More: Basketball on Wikipedia